(USA From 1989 Episodes = 22-26 min)
Creator Matt Groening; Writers James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon, John Swartzwelder and 65 others; Music Alf Clausen, Richard Gibbs, Arthur B Rubinstein; Voice Acting Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson), Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson), Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson), Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson)
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Come on Homer, Japan will be fun. You liked Rashomon.
That’s not how I remember it!
There are plenty of hugely popular and long-lasting cultural phenomena that appear immune to criticism. To some extent, taking Citizen Kane and The Godfather as prime examples, the hyped, synthesised image has taken over from the real, organic one.
Not The Simpsons.
Its elevated, nay worshipped, status is based on continuous reappraisal, on being seen week in and week out by a general public that leads the way. There is no time for critics or for tyrannical consensus, or for mere forgetfulness, to take it hostage. The Simpsons has to prove itself each episode, where success isn’t in dry polls or in a phantom objectivity but ever-evolving in our living rooms.
The Simpsons is so culturally ingrained that we cannot imagine a time before it. This is a colossal achievement in itself, to become part of the fabric of people’s lives. One of the great marvels of The Simpsons is how diverse people’s responses are to it. A Simpsons fan can gleefully shout out “D’oh!” or “Woohoo!” to which another fan may roll his eyes and think “that’s not my Simpsons”. There is so much to take from it and room for so many experiences within it.
I could say “what more can we say about The Simpsons that hasn’t been said” but you shouldn’t need an excuse to talk about something that gives so much pleasure.
For me, the joy of The Simpsons lies, as much as in its comic genius, in its unassuming charm. Whenever Homer tucked Maggie into bed or Bart and Lisa reconciled after a feud it didn’t matter if it was funny or not. Nobody cared if they were laughing as long as they were smiling. The Simpsons are a family you want to be a part of. Their lives are so well drawn as to feel real, yet The Simpsons always retains the ‘anything goes’ parallel language, morals and physicality of animation that allow any flaw and act of gratuitous choking or the creepy forever-young loop to be quickly forgiven and forgotten. All its humour would have been cold, or even offensive, without good humour. That is to say, affection.
Who could not be moved when, Homer explaining why there are no pictures of Maggie in the photo album, we see her cute face, eyes beaming, stuck all over his factory office wall. Whether Bart’s label is naughty, Lisa’s conscientious, Marge’s irritable or Homer’s dopey, they are first and foremost brothers, sisters, children, parents. Who knew splodges of yellow ink could share such a bond?
The Simpsons uses a battery of humour unprecedented on television. Its comedy is a delicious melange of slapstick, wordplay, giddy fun, irony, blanket satire, parody, erudite literary references, character nuance, simple exaggeration… Indeed, there is probably no colour in the spectrum of mirth and merriment that The Simpsons hasn’t been drawn with. When they get the laughs just right, the tears flow, and your sides hurt. It is the best of both worlds: high and low, conservative and irreverent, profound and frivolous. It knows when acts have to have consequences and when they can be thrown away for an inconsequential caper.
It is a classic of story through character and humour through both. No drama, soap or comedy before or since has juggled so many characters so effectively.
Later series showed that this juggernaut of invention had run out of steam, with Springfield’s population reduced to (bad) gag machines, their voices becoming harsher, the heart seeping out. Yet perhaps this (inevitable?) drop-off makes us realise how special The Simpsons is, that the impact it made and the enjoyment it brought should be cherished, for nothing lasts forever.
Homer eating his beloved lobster Pinchy (“I wish Pinchy were here to enjoy this”), Millhouse playing the ridiculously expensive Waterworld video game, Marge reeling off her family’s allergies (Bart’s are butterscotch, imitation butterscotch and glow-in-the-dark monster makeup), Lisa’s sweet crush on Mr Bergstrom, or Ken Griffey Jr.’s grotesquely swollen jaw. The list is endless. The Simpsons influenced comedy from Arrested Development to King of the Hill but it cannot be replicated, not even, any more, by its own writers.
A giant of modern American Art.